Jim Fleming doesn’t think he’d last very long on the street.
With severe arthritis that makes standing for more than a few minutes unbearably painful, heart conditions that have triggered heart attacks and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the 64-year-old sometimes has trouble leaving the small room he rents at the Stratford Motel in downtown Whitehorse, a place he’s called home for the past 19 years.
“Always, my biggest worry has been keeping a roof over my head,” Fleming said. His monthly rent is covered by Yukon Social Assistance (YSA) as he waits for a public housing unit to open up. “I don’t want to wind up on the street, especially now with my age and my health. I won’t last a year.”
But that may soon be a reality for Fleming and at least three other residents — all of whom are also on social assistance — at the motel. On June 30, they received 90-day notices to vacate their long-term rooms and are struggling to find new accommodations in an expensive, highly competitive rental market.
And it’s a story housing advocates in the Yukon say they hear over and over again.
“The reality of it is that there isn’t enough affordable housing, there isn’t enough social housing to meet the needs of the clients that are currently trying to access it,” Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition housing navigator Meg Grudeski told the News in a phone interview.
Although YAPC hadn’t heard about the situation at the Stratford, Grudeski said the coalition is “very aware of people who are living in the motels” who are asked to vacate when the owners need the space for something else.
“The real issue is, truly, there are not a lot of units in the affordable range that social assistance is able to pay for, so it’s really hard for people to move out of the situations because there is no where affordable for them to move into,” she said.
Fleming knows this all too well.
“Most places I’ve looked at, they’re well over $1,000, $1,200, $1,400,” he said, noting that YSA only pays up to just under $1,000 a month. “Anything more than that, it comes out of my own pocket, out of my subsistence money, which lowers my money that I have for buying food or clothing.”
Don Lajoie, another longtime Stratford resident who was served notice, has also been facing issues finding a new place, although his problem is of a slightly different nature.
“Right now, I’m trying to get a room and I can’t even find an apartment because the minute I tell (landlords) I’m from the Stratford, they just hang up on me,” Lajoie, 61, said.
“I had a beautiful place found and the guy was all ready to be my landlord, then I told him I was on YSA, I gave my paper trail and (he said), ‘Nope. No YSA here.’”
Although the Yukon Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination based on a person’s source of income, Takhini-Kopper King NDP MLA Kate White said YSA clients “absolutely” face barriers when approaching prospective landlords and that a human rights complaint can be hard to prove. Her office is working with one of the Stratford residents trying to find a new home.
“The tricky part is that the landlord has the ability to say yes or no to any prospective tenant,” White said, noting that landlords can also legally ask tenants to vacate a property for any reason as long as they give notice far enough in advance.
“When we talk about people and housing insecurity, often, people have an image in their mind of who that person is…. The challenge is, how do you tell someone to put their bias aside and give someone an opportunity?”
Reached on the phone Thursday, Stratford Motel co-owner Eddy Ng said that four month-to-month tenants, all YSA clients, were given notices to vacate because their rooms need to be renovated. He added that there had been a few “little problems” with some of the residents, including smoking in rooms and drinking, but did not want to further elaborate.
Lajoie, though, said the notices were handed out shortly after he got into two heated arguments with the motel’s other co-owner, Bonnie Ng, and that six people were ordered to vacate. The arguments, Lajoie said, occurred after Bonnie accused him of owing her money when he didn’t.
Bonnie could not be reached for comment before press time. A motel receptionist said she was out of town until Friday night. Calls to the two additional people Lajoie said received notices to vacate were not answered, nor did they open their doors when a reporter visited the motel Thursday afternoon.
For his part, Fleming said he’s focusing on the hunt for his new home. His mobility issues have made it hard for him to physically visit potential rooms or apartments, so he’s been relying on websites like Kijiji and word of mouth.
“The only thing I can do is hope I find something,” he said.
“For 19 years I’ve felt secure and now all of a sudden everything’s thrown up in the air.”
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org